The recent killing of a rare, 50-year-old desert-adapted elephant in by a trophy hunter in Namibia has caused an uproar in the southern African nation. The story is upsetting on any number of levels, not least because Namibia has a hard-won — and laudable — reputation for being both environmentally aware and conservation minded. It is one of the frew countries on the African continent — the only one? — to have environmental protections written into its constitution.
Namibia is home to some of Africa’s most prominent, high-profile wildlife conservation NGOs, from the AfriCat Foundation and Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) to the Save the Rhino Trust and the pangolin and cape vulture-directed Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST).
Conservation groups and tourism operators — Namibia counts tourism as one of its most important revenue generators — have accused the government of authorizing the hunt without proper cause.
Those are the facts as recounted by the Reuters news agency. The less-reported story is how media spin has created two very different versions of what happened, and why. And it’s that media spin that may prove to be the larger conservation story. With the effects of climate change becoming increasingly clear to even the most hard-headed climate denier, conflicts are only going to grow, and become more volatile. How the outside world views those conflicts, whether it’s famine driving the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur province and exacerbating tribal and religious tensions in Mali and the Sahel, on the other side of the continent, how the media choose to report a story will have an increased effect on world opinion.
And as the killing of “Voortrekker,” as the alpha male elephant, a dominant bull in the rare Ugab desert-adapted herd was popularly called, shows, a seemingly simple story can take on different shades depending on who’s telling the story.
First, some basic facts that all sides can agree on and that I have witnessed with my own eyes. Namibia’s desert-adapted elephants are unique, by any standard. They travel vast distances, over sand and rock, to find water and food to eat.
Over time, they have developed longer legs, for walking long distances, which makes them appear taller and bulkier than other savannah elephants.
Their tusks tend to be very short, but bulky (no one knows why, though some scientists have speculated that the lack of mineral intake stunts growth; also, the tusks are not needed as much for ploughing through tall grass and knocking down trees, since there’s no grass in the desert and trees are few and far between. For whatever reason — and this is key to wildlife-human conflict — desert elephants are much more skittish and unpredictable around people. Even experienced field biologists and tourist guides are wary around them, and the few tourists who make it into Damaraland and the barren Omatjete district are kept a long distance from the elephants, even when they appear to be quiet and minding their own business. The herds are small, by elephant standards, and bulls often roam on their own, or in pairs.
Subsistence farming, on the desert’s edge, is a hard life for the relatively few people who live in the area, and where agricultural farmland meets thirsty, hungry elephants who have roamed hundreds of miles in some instances, conflict is inevitable.
Namibia is also a country that allows — and in many cases encourages — trophy hunting as another source of much-needed foreign currency, which puts it in league with South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, and at odds with Botswana — for now — and Kenya. (Hard fact: Trophy hunting generates, at most, between 0.5% and 5% of total tourist revenue, so that argument, like so many arguments that support trophy hunting, is a bit of a shuck.)
The real controversy surrounding the killing of Voortrekker — which no one should be celebrating — centres on whether he was a problem elephant culled for terrorizing subsistence farmers and threatening lives and property, or simply killed for money, a one-off licence fee and an ego boost for a lone trophy hunter.
It depends on which version you read.